Diavolos can sense that the festivities are winding down. The imminence of battle didn't seem to sour anyone's mood at the start of the evening, but the dread and tensions are beginning to show in the guests. Annelyse had departed first, fretting over the conditions of the infirmary. Of Kenna's inner circle, Val had held out the longest, the Skullcracker ale she sampled probably helping stave off the worry as long as it did.
Eventually, the banquet thins. Kenna stays among the lingering guests for awhile. Sometimes she is serious, like she continues to discuss strategy even in the midst of the party, and sometimes, she is carefree, like the battle is the last thing on her mind. It depends who she's speaking to, Diavolos supposes, and what they need their queen to be for them in that moment.
It must be exhausting.
Diavolos feels a swell of admiration for Kenna. It's something he felt a lot recently. He isn't sure if he should fight it.
Kenna extracts herself from a conversation with one of the more fearful Stormholt soldiers and spots Diavolos leaning against the ballroom wall. She smirks at him, and he finds himself smirking back. He doesn't really know why. Nothing humorous has transpired, but it seems an appropriate reaction to whatever unspoken thing they've just exchanged. Kenna begins in his direction.
He is curious what kind of queen she will assume she needs to be for him.
"Still tense?" she asks once she reaches him.
"Could be worse," he shrugs against the wall.
A comforter? Does she think he needs a comforter?
"We've prepared for the battle as much as we can," Kenna recites. "The troops have all gone over their--"
"Kenna," Diavolos interrupts gently, "you don't need to do that."
"Hm?" she frowns. Guests continue to file out of the room behind her, turning in for the night.
"You've had a long evening," he says, "pandering to every weary soldier who comes to you with their distress. You don't need to coddle me like you do for them."
"Coddling?" she scowls. "Do you find comfort offensive?"
"I just want you to know I don't need it."
"Don't insult the solders you are to fight with tomorrow, Diavolos," she says. "They have families and lives and purpose outside of this."
"I'm aware of that, but--"
"And if the thought of losing that alarms them, that doesn't make them weak," she continues. "If I want to let them know that I see what they are risking, that does not mean I'm coddling them. Maybe your father never cared what your troops are risking, but I do."
"And," she presses on insistently, "you are not above these soldiers because you think that purpose outside of battle is something you don't share. You don't get to reject any kindness and feel superior about it. Is that perfectly understood?"
Diavolos opens his mouth to speak, finally, but nothing comes out. He stands there against the wall, slack-jawed and silent.
She's right. Of course she's right. When is she not?
"Diavolos, do we understand each other?" Kenna repeats.
Diavolos blinks at her, still stunned into silence.
She cares what he's risking tomorrow. Does his father? Has he ever?
But this woman does. This woman who decimated the soldiers he fought alongside at the Battle of the Bay now cares about what he and his men are risking for her.
And for some reason, Diavolos doesn't think that makes her a hypocrite.
He thinks it makes her a queen.
Diavolos reaches forward, hooking a finger into the belt of her armor and pulls her to him.
"Diavolos!" she gasps.
He wraps an arm around her waist, pulling her flush against him. He waits a split second, waiting to see if she'll push him away or protest. He knows all too well what happens to those who upset Kenna Rys. When she doesn't object, he kisses her confidently, like he's never been more sure about anything.
And, he notes with a hint of smugness, there is no hesitation when she kisses him back. She reaches up to lace her fingers through his dark hair, unsettling the circlet around his head. She angles herself to deepen the kiss, and Diavolos smiles against her. He winds his hands through her long, brown hair and tugs her face away, exposing her neck. She sighs as he trails his mouth across her throat.
It feels like they've just begun when she pulls away abruptly.
"Wait," she says, "someone could see..."
Maybe it doesn't matter, Kenna thinks. She still remembers the world where she expected every romance in her life to be laid out for political benefit. When she put on a costume to sneak off to the Beltane festival. When Gabriel wagged his finger every time she and Dom sat too close to one another. There's a battle for the Five Kingdoms tomorrow. Would anyone mind if she kissed this man at the end of a party where everyone's too tired and scared to care anyway?
But before she can come to any conclusions on the matters, Diavolos speaks.
"Not to worry," Diavolos proclaims, "I'll hide you."
He tightens his grip on her waist and spins her around to slam her against the wall. He presses his hand into the stone beside her head, pinning her against the stone. She doesn't even flinch, meeting his eyes the entire time.
"There," he says with a satisfied smirk. "Now no one can see you."
The corner of Kenna's lip quirks as Diavolos busies himself with her neck again. She feels his teeth bite into her skin, and she fights to maintain decorum in this fully public setting, digging her nails into his shoulders. The new position is a silly measure that would not keep anyone from seeing her, but she finds herself believing that it will do. Diavolos, at least, seems to be behaving like he's fully concealed them both from view.
"I had no idea you were something of a magician," she teases about her apparent invisibility.
"Oh no, I can't stand that magic stuff," he murmurs against her skin. "The Witch Queen made sure of that."
"Imagine how you'll feel if she kills me tomorrow."
Diavolos stills suddenly. Kenna's face falls. He pulls away from her slowly, not meeting her eyes. Kenna softens.
"I don't know why I said that," Kenna says. She wouldn't normally wouldn't joke about Azura, and she certainly wouldn't joke about her actually besting her. Diavolos joked about heavy subjects all the time, but Kenna took them seriously.
"I must be rubbing off on you," Diavolos attempts to keep the exchange light, but still won't look at her.
Kenna tentatively reaches a hand out and cups his cheek, gently urging him to face her. It takes a second, but eventually, he lifts his onyx eyes to hers.
"Would it be acceptable if I comforted you now?" Kenna teases, but there's still utmost sincerity about it.
"You can try," he replies dryly.
"Try?" she echoes.
"I don't have a family to fight for or come home to like those other soldiers," he says. "There's no doting wife in a safe village biting her nails over my safety."
Kenna lifts her other hand to his face, forcing Diavolos to completely look at her.
"Diavolos, I care whether or not you live," she assures him.
"Well, I am leading part of the army," he jokes, gently taking her hands and pulling them from his face.
"I don't just care for you as a soldier," Kenna shakes her head. "I care about the life you will have after we're finally done fighting for it."
Diavolos holds her gaze, in awe of everything about her.
When he doesn't speak, Kenna continues, "I want you to care about something outside of war, Diavolos. I am a queen who intends to have as few of them as possible."
"I do, Kenna," he says so low and soft, she'd miss it if she wasn't inches from his face. "I do."
Diavolos leans down slowly as Kenna's eyes flutter closed. He inches closer until his lips finally meet hers. It's softer than the first time, softer than he's ever kissed her or anyone else before. He takes one of his hands from the wall and tilts her chin up to him, barely brushing her skin. They kiss softly and slowly and chastely, like they are both fragile things even though they have both seen more war than men twice their age.
Out of nowhere, the urge builds in him to whisper that he loves her. He doesn't even know if it's true, and surely he shouldn't say it even if it is. What good would it do? Who would benefit from that? Does he even know what love looks like?
But when Kenna reaches for his waist and pulls him closer, all of that seems trivial.
"Kenna," he barely whispers into the air between them, "I--"
"Well, isn't this titillating?" a mocking voice utters from far too close for comfort.
Diavolos jumps back from her. Kenna pales as she recognizes the voice.
Luther Nevrakis stands before them, a deep scowl set into his harsh features.
"Father--" Diavolos starts.
"Oh, don't let me interrupt," Luther says snidely. "By all means, continue. The Stormholt and Abanthus troops have to learn to work together, right? Surely seeing their leaders get along so swimmingly will show them the power of teamwork."
Kenna glares. Diavolos withers in the presence of her fury.
"I should turn in," Kenna says.
"Perhaps that would be wise," Luther agrees with faux-concern.
Kenna brushes past Diavolos.
"Goodnight, Diavolos," she mutters.
"Good...night," he tries to return, but she's already walking out of the ballroom.
Luther watches her go. Once she's gone, he fixes his steely gaze on his son.
"Anything to say?" he challenges.
"It's none of your concern," he retorts.
"My concern?" he growls, advancing on him. "My concern is restoring Abanthus to glory and uniting these kingdoms under my banner. Do you understand that the child queen is a threat to that?"
"And what of the Empress?" he reminds him.
"Yes, we are dealing with the Empress," Luther says. "That's why we're here. But once that is done, Kenna is the last thing between us and our rightful place."
"So you've mentioned," he accepts. "Let's focus on the Empress for now, shall we?"
"Do you actually care for her?" Luther spits, like the very idea disgusts him. "The daughter of the coward queen who wants to destroy the Five Kingdoms? She's worthless, Diavolos. She is less than nothing."
"Don't talk about her that way," Diavolos glowers.
Luther's face falls in utter disappointment. It's a face Diavolos recognizes. He looks away.
"I'm going to bed," he says.
Daivolos tries to leave, but Luther grabs him by the arm, forcing him to stop.
"You do understand that Kenna could never love you?" Luther says.
Diavolos wrenches his arm free. "You don't know anything about her."
"I knew her mother," he reminds him. "In fact, I killed her mother."
Diavolos shakes his head and looks away. Kenna is so loved and respected now. It's hard to believed she was an exiled queen a short time ago, and that it was his family that made her that way.
"Do you think she's forgotten?" Luther glares. "Do you think she doesn't think of that day every time she looks at you?"
Diavolos tries not to look like he's getting to him. His father is cruel and blunt and certainly has ulterior motives, but is he wrong? Could Kenna ever truly accept the son of the man who killed her mother? The Nevrakis family has terrorized everything she held dear.
"And now you're in charge of the Abanthus knights for a battle she's desperate to win," Luther explains. "Suddenly, she feels tenderly for you, when the tides of battle rely on you? Do you think that's a coincidence?"
"She's not like that."
"Kenna is fiercely loyal to her people," Luther explains. "There is little she wouldn't do for them. That includes forming an alliance with man who killed her mother. That includes letting his idiot son lead the knights of Abanthus in battle. And that includes stomaching the sight of him for a few days, giving him delusions of some petty romance, to ensure that he doesn't betray her."
Diavolos clenches his jaw. Suddenly, he feels like a fool nearly whispering that he loved her.
Luther scouts the doubt creeping into him. She stands in front of his son and takes him by the shoulder.
"My son, after the end of the battle tomorrow, if Kenna finds away to best the Iron Empire," he says, "we are killing her and taking her place."
Diavolos's head snaps up to look at his father.
"She will be weary from battle," he explains, "and she will think that her troubles have passed her by. That is when we will strike."
"We agreed to an alliance," Diavolos insists.
"To defeat Azura," Luther clarifies. "Once that is done, we are done with her. Is that understood?"
Diavolos blinks up at his father.
"Understood," he echoes robotically.
Luther drops his hands from his shoulders.
"Good," he nods. "Now, get some rest. Big day tomorrow."
Luther turns and walks out of the ballroom, not looking back as he goes.
Diavolos stands at the edge of he room. He wants to run to Kenna's chambers. He could really use some of that comfort she was talking about right now. In fact, he's utterly desperate for it. He wants Kenna to hold him and look at him like she was a minute ago. He wants her to assure him that his father is wrong about everything, and they can be together when this is done, and that she doesn't hold the atrocities his family has committed against him.
Perhaps that's too much to expect from anyone, let alone from Kenna, but he wouldn't be the first to expect the world from her.
He turns in for the night, thoughts swimming. He decides to focus on the battle at hand. In battle, at least, he is sure of what to do.
But even as he tries to fall asleep, the idea that he loves her, or feels something like it, never leaves his mind.